Tight budgets can fuel innovation, say top IT leaders

illustration dollar sign in vise

The notion that efficiency can fuel innovation is one of the key premises of the movement inside the Obama administration to put IT procurement, design and development on a more agile, responsive footing. CIOs past and present have promised rank-and-file IT personnel that savings achieved from smarter contracting, data center consolidation, reducing operations and maintenance spending, and other cost-saving measures can be applied to more innovative projects that tap more modern technology to improve citizen services or core agency mission performance.

But can innovation be done on the cheap? At the annual CIO Council symposium, government IT workers asked federal CTO Megan Smith and deputy federal CIO Lisa Schlosser how innovation is possible given the government culture focused on strict budgeting and appropriations rules, and how to demonstrate savings with new ideas that might not be measurable, or might not pay off at all.

Schlosser acknowledged that there is frustration with the budgeting process. The key to securing funds for innovative projects is to start with small pilots that can prove themselves out.

"When an agency has come up with an innovative plan, as part of their budget, where they can show that with very specific milestones and very specific deliverables and a very strategic approach to transforming their organization from a business and mission standpoint using technology, they have been supported by [the Office of Management and Budget] and I've seen them supported throughout the process," Schlosser said.

But, she noted, some proof of concept has to precede a dedicated funding stream for a new project.

"A lot of the key is really... looking at your mission, looking at your agency, and coming up with that plan that shows how you're going to move forward and then embed in that plan clear-cut examples where you've run small pilots, where you've made even a small difference to demonstrate that you really do get it, that you have a vision, that you do have a plan to show the success of your broader plan," Schlosser said.

With the technology at hand today, pilots can be done on the cheap, Smith said. "The amount of stuff that is available to us to prototype on is extraordinary," she said. Now developers can rip out quick pilots with "almost no money," which gives rise to the possibility of a more agile approach.

Smith quoted her former colleague, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who in a 2008 letter to investors, written against the backdrop of the financial crisis, that "scarcity brings clarity." What is clear to Smith in her short time as federal CTO is that government culture inhibits collaboration.

"I think the most important thing is that we don't cross-functionally collaborate. We don't sit together when we're planning things as well as we could, and break down projects into [minimum viable products] and iterations," she said. "We have to get technical folks into the planning ... rather than at the implementation stage only. It's crushing us that we don't do that, we have to change that, and you have to help us," she said.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Reader comments

Wed, Jun 17, 2015 Owen Ambur Hilton Head, SC

Smith observes, "We don't sit together when we're planning things as well as we could." However, it is literally impossible for all affected stakeholders to "sit together" to plan effectively. On the other hand, when agencies start applying the logic of section 10 of the GPRA Modernization Act (GPRAMA) to all of their plans, computers can enable us to come together virtually in order to strategically align our respective plans, unconstrained by the limits of time and space. Publications like FCW can help accelerate the realization of more effective planning processes -- by holding agencies accountable for publishing their plans in machine-readable format ... preferably an open, standard, machine-readable format like StratML.

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